Sergei Lavrov, the stony-faced veteran of Russian diplomacy, has caused a fresh stir by renewing Russia’s nuclear threat.
Speaking on state television last night, Moscow’s Foreign Minister accused western leaders of risking a third world war by supplying heavy weapons to Kyiv, in what, he argues, has effectively become an undeclared proxy war.
When pressed about the possibility of the current conflict spiralling into a nuclear war, Lavrov replied: “The risks are very significant. I do not want the danger to be artificially inflated [but] it is serious, real. It cannot be underestimated.”
“In essence,” he added, “NATO is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”
What should we make of Lavrov’s remarks?
It’s certainly no coincidence that the interview was aired just hours after the US State Department approved the potential sale of $165 million worth of ammunition to Ukraine – including artillery and drones it held back from sending in earlier phases of the war.
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When US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, pledged to arm Ukraine more heavily during their joint trip to the Ukrainian capital, their tone was noticeably bolder. It seems the US has moved from talk of helping Ukraine defend itself to talk of assisting it in defeating Russia: “Ukraine clearly believes that it can win, and so does everyone here,” said Austin.
It’s hardly surprising this bold talk has been met with a marked escalation of Russian rhetoric. Russia, like many nuclear-armed countries, asserts in its deterrence doctrine its policy to use nuclear weapons in the case of an existential threat.
But if the Ukrainians are unnerved by Lavrov’s latest comments, they’ve chosen to conceal it. Late last night, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, urged the West to keep supporting Kyiv, adding that his Russian counterpart’s threat of nuclear escalation “only means Moscow senses defeat.”
James Heappey, Britain’s armed forces minister, has been similarly dismissive, insisting “I don’t think that right now there is an imminent threat of escalation. Lavrov’s trademark over the course of 15 years or so that he has been the Russian foreign secretary has been that sort of bravado.”
But does bravado amount to the same as bluffing? Let’s hope so.